Well, this turned out to be a great gig! I got a call asking if I would be willing to haul a photographer on my bike for a marathon. The last one I did was the Motorola marathon in February. It was about 40 degrees at 5:00 in the morning when I left the house for that one and after 25 miles at 70 MPH, the wind chill overcame my gloves and jacket. The start was at 7:00 am and the whole thing took about 5 hours. It was a lot of fun all in all, so I jumped at the chance to do another one.

Merle Grall - aint no picnicThis one was Willie Nelson’s “This Ain’t no Picnic” Farm Aid Concert and 10k marathon. I got to the Run Tex store on time and signed up at the volunteer registration. When I told them what my job was, they seemed to treat me with a lot of respect. Maybe when they associate motorcycle riders with an event like this, they still think of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels at that Rolling Stone thing. I’m sure I don’t look the part, though, I was just dressed regular and didn’t even wear my overalls. Of course, I guess being about 20 – 30 yrs. older than most of the other volunteers may have had something to do with it too.

I connected up with the guy I was supposed to and he was going to set me up with the photographer and parked Mr. Breeze (my Valkyrie) in front of the ticket entrance. I really get a kick out of this whole thing. You get to drive through barricades, in and out of traffic, wrong way down the street, and cops waving you through the entire time! We went to the stage where a press conference was going on to find the shutterbug. This was interesting hanging out by the tour busses and being just a few feet away from Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and Lance Armstrong while the media took pictures and did interview type stuff. I was with a couple of young volunteers that were supposed to make sure I got with my rider, and even they moved closer to get a better look at the celebrities while I stayed back where I was. Pretty soon this guy walks past me with about 3 big cameras and I wondered if maybe this was my guy. I started to say something to him but figured it wasn’t him or the ever-vigilant volunteers would’ve said something. Just to be sure I thought maybe I should ask, so I went over to where the volunteers were being ever vigilant over the press conference hoopla and asked if the guy walking away with the cameras could be my man. Sure ‘Nuff he was. They hollered at him and I went down to catch up.

Merle Grall - aint no picnic

This was from a previous marathon I participated in as a Moto-Photo Rider. I had a blast then so why not give it another go.

He’s a freelancer from NYC and was doing this for Runner’s World magazine, so if you get a copy and see pictures of the runner’s, you’ll know they were shot from the back of my bike. He gave me a media pass and free concert ticket for my efforts. I already had one ticket that they gave me at check-in but didn’t really need it since the media badge got me in and out of just about everywhere. He was a really nice guy and not really too big. The last photographer I carried was a girl about 5’1 and might’ve weighed all of 100 lbs. She was able to crawl all over the back seat and even stood on it a time or two. I was a little concerned at how well this guy would fit, but it was no problem. He crawled on sitting backward and all I felt was the backend go down a little. I drove him down to the starting line and while he went to get shots of the start, I went ahead and stiffened the rear shocks a notch which put it back to a more recognizable handling characteristic.

Just like everyone else that first encounters a Valkyrie, he had a comment of amazement. His was regarding how smooth it rode. I’m used to that sort of thing, because as lots of other Valk riders experience you always get stares in parking lots, turning heads by passersby and occasionally someone on the street telling you what a great looking’ machine it is. Just the other night on 6th street I had an older man stop and look the bike over. Like most non-riders, his first question was if it was a Harley. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t and how a Valkyrie is an HPM (High-Performance Motorcycle) as opposed to a Harley, which is an HPFA (High Priced Fashion Accessory). Same old story; men look longingly with envy and the women swoon when you go by. I had about 30 minutes to wait till the actual start, so I did some people watching’ and made A quick trip to the porta potty while the dignitaries and announcers did their thing at the starting line. The wheel chairs took off first as usual. For those not familiar with these marathons, as I’m just now becoming, they don’t send them off first because it’s a handicap thing, these guys are quick! Those chairs are pretty damn impressive too. I don’t know what the times are, but they gave them a 5-minute head start and I never saw them again.

Finally, all the runners left and after the last of the “mosyers” (those who just mosey along) the photographer showed up and we took off. He directed me to a turn about 1/4 way through the route and we caught up with the pack. We proceeded on weaving around runners and dodging cops and regular traffic till we got to the guy in first. He was way ahead of everybody else and the second place runner was about a quarter mile behind with the same spread between himself and everybody behind him. He directed me when to slow down or speed up and took lots of shots of the first and second place runners. Towards the last quarter of the route he told me to head on in to the finish line and when we got there he jumped off, shook my hand and said “thanks.” That was it? All of 20 min. of riding? That was just way too easy!

I rode on back towards the start, once again breaching a police barricade with full permission and parked in the lot with the TV news trucks. The runners from the 5k portion of the race were starting to file in so I decided to make my way over to the concert area. Right off the bat, I was able to get up close and personal with a genuine Austin celebrity; mayoral candidate Leslie, infamous downtown homeless crossdresser. I guess he was trying to tone down his usual flamboyant halter top-miniskirt-fishnet hose image by wearing a tasteful black dress and leopard print sweater, but I ain’t that familiar with stylish women’s clothing so I won’t venture into a commentary on that. He was talking to some guys about his platform that centered around reviving the outdoor concert scene and “keeping Austin weird” theme.

Merle Grall - aint no picnic

Mayoral Candidate Leslie Cochran was about as close to a celebrity that I came close to. He wasn’t my choice for Mayor and I wasn’t going to get into a debate as to why. Photo courtesy: New York Times

 

Personally, I’m a bit conservative and the idea of this guy trying to win a legs contest against some of our more serious candidates was a little appalling. Elections are serious business and should be decided based on the issues and in a fair, free, election with butterfly ballots. I wanted to put him in his place by asking a hardball question like what he intends to do about the anthrax problem, and if he thought there was any connection with the guys that run around wearing camo all the time out towards Smithwick. I really just wanted to lighten up with festivities instead, so I wandered around to see just how much I could get away with wearing that media pass.

I got over to the backstage area and just kinda milled around like I belonged there. The guy at the gate looked at my badge, but I told him I was just hangin’ out lookin’ for someone. I think if I’d pushed the issue I could’ve gotten in, but he wasn’t sure it was ok and I didn’t want to risk being pegged as a groupie nutcase, so I nonchalantly walked away and had an encounter with a seasoned groupie nutcase. I can’t for the life of me remember her name, so let’s go with Carol. She was in a wheelchair and called me over. I couldn’t understand her very well, but she asked me if I knew Blabberforth. That’s probably not what she said but that’s what it sounded like and the problem wasn’t her disability so much as it was my hearing. I tend to just smile and nod at people when I don’t understand them. Maybe that’s why everyone thinks I’m so friendly. She explained that she knew everyone in Willie’s band and published some sort of website and was trying to get a backstage pass. Some other lady, presumably an insider, came by and told her that someone over by “Willie’s place” (the entrance to the VIP refreshment area) wanted to ask her some questions about Willie and the band. I thought maybe I’d hit the big time here and if I just stuck with her I might find myself passing a doobie with the red-headed stranger later and maybe sit in on harmonica for a song or two during the show. Maybe even get lined up to go on tour, move to Luchenbach, and …… sorry, I digress with my delusions.

So anyway we started making our way over to “Willie’s Place”. About halfway there we ran into the same lady as before and another dark-haired woman with her that seemed to have some connection with the band. They talked to Carol and knew her well. Carol asked if they could get her a pass and all they could say was that they were instructed not to even ask. The
dark haired lady said don’t even think about it until they could get back in good graces, and till then don’t even ask. Needless to say, that smelled of an interesting story so I asked Carol about it. She said it happened last August in San Antonio when she was on vacation. She then went into one of those old familiar premises of “It was really hot and I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. I had a couple of beers and a margarita and don’t really remember much after that…..” You can pretty much fill in the rest. Something about a real curvy road and next thing she knew it was morning and she was in the driver’s seat of her car in front of a Denny’s. It seemed it would be a good idea not to let myself seem too closely associated with her, so we sort of parted company.

At that point, I was at the entrance to the VIP area and met up with some of the volunteers I’d been with earlier. We went in and got to pig out on cheese, meats and free beer. I don’t know who the VIP’s were or how you got to be one, but there did seem to be a lot of folks that were actually helping out with the event.

Back out front the show was about to start and I got to thinking about what to do with the two tickets I had. I decided to go back to the bike to get my phone and call my son to see if he was interested. I ran into his dorm mate’s mother and she said they’d been at her place all day practicing. They’re both freshmen at UT and have a band. I managed to get in touch with them and Ben (my son) said he couldn’t because he had a paper to do, but Andy wanted to go, so I told them I’d meet them out by the entrance. I walked on out and spent about 30 min. learning the ins and outs of the ticket scalping trade by hangin’ out with those guys that stand on the corner buying and selling tickets. Andy showed up and I gave him one ticket and then sold the other to one of the scalpers. They were nice guys; the kind you’d feel comfortable sharing a bottle of wine with on the curb after a hard day sellin’ crack. I like feeling like I can be one with the common folk that way. I think it’s ’cause they just feel so much like family.

Merle Grall - aint no picnic

I didn’t get to hang with “the man” but I had a great time regardless. It’s amazing the opportunities that present themselves to you when you ride on 2 wheels.

Back inside the grounds, which I brazenly was able to once again enter by displaying the ever powerful media badge; the key to all forbidden corners of the universe, and the show was in full swing. I entered the VIP seating area, which was right in front of the stage and you could see every wrinkle on Willie’s saggy old arms It was just overwhelming. Lyle Lovett sang a couple with him and my personal favorite of the whole show was the two of them doing “The Nightlife, it Ain’t No Good Life, But It’s My Life”. There was a rumor that Merle Haggered was gonna show up, but that never materialized. I saw Brian (the photographer) again and pretty soon John (the guy that got me into this) came by. We shuffled off with some more volunteers and were supposed to go backstage to meet Willie personally after the show, but while we were waiting to get through the gate to go back there, one of the big tour busses started pulling out with Willie on board. No big deal. I mean I wouldn’t want to hang out at work an extra hour and spend time talking with my customers about boring computer stuff. It was a fun time and I’d do it again in a second. A live Willie concert on a beautiful October night in Austin, Texas at town lake, all that free food and beer and riding the finest bike ever made—- That’s about as close to the whipped cream and cherry on top of the sundae of life that you can get to.

About The Author
Merle Grall grew up in Oklahoma working machine shops, factories, construction and other various gigs while getting himself through high school. Half of his time in school was spent in vo-tech aircraft engine courses and in his spare time he focused on hot rods, motorcycles, hunting, fishing and in the latter years partying, long hair and rock n roll. His first motorcycle was a Suzuki 50 that he bought for $50 by saving up his pay from working at a drive-in theater.

Merle now resides on the edge of hill country in Texas and currently rides “Mr. Breeze,” his ’98 Valkyrie that is just getting broken in at 70k miles on the odometer. Some of his favorite areas to ride are Big Bend, Colorado, Utah or anywhere with great roads away from crowds. “I just know from experience that finding out what is around the next bend is like reading the first line of the next story in your life and you certainly don’t want to pass that up or not find out how it ends. I guess to sum it all up my perspective of life is that the journey is the destination, and to get there I just make it up as I go along.”

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